What Keeps Women Off Boards?

Last week I met Helvi Sandvik.

what keeps women off boards 01She's an indigenous Alaskan from a small village (population 363). She's also President of NANA Development Corporation, an Alaskan based international business ($1.7 Billion in revenue; employing 15.000 people on 4 continents).

Kiana, Alaska (pop.363)
what keeps women off boards 02Oh, and she's on the Board of Alaska Airlines, has chaired the Seattle branch of the US Federal Reserve Bank, was Alaskan of the Year (2010), and has received other numerous awards.

Here's the thing: the odds were stacked against her in business and probably in life, too.

So what keeps people like her (women, indigenous, minorities) off Boards?

Well, not much really. There are more women on boards than ever before and usually for the right reason: they acquired, then demonstrated their competence. That is, they earned it, just like the men.

As Helvi's father told her, sure, use the fact that you're female / indigenous to get in the room but once inside demonstrate your skills to stay in the room.

I've interviewed male and female Board candidates on 3 continents and can tell you this:

  • Some boards are better than others. As with any job, in any industry some roles are better than others, ie, some simply suit you better. So do your due diligence. As always, the task is to find the right role for you, not the first role available to you.
  • Start small, learn the game. I'm continually amazed by how many people seek to be on company Boards yet have no idea of what being a Board member actually entails (hint: become intimately familiar with liability insurance). 

what keeps women off boards 03So you want to become a company director? Ok, here's what you do: call every director you know and ask them two questions: 1) What do you like about your job and 2) What do you dislike about your job?

Take notes. Mull it over.

If you still want to sit on a Board of Directors, start with a small company, learn the vagaries of Board politics and commit to working your way up into bigger boards of larger companies through your contributions.

Be careful what you wish for or pursue. Boards are not for everyone. Just as it takes a certain type of person to succeed at senior corporate levels and in senior corporate roles, it takes a certain kind of person to succeed as a company director. If your skills and abilities lie elsewhere, no problem. What's the harm in acknowledging that truth? There are many ways to contribute to business life beside directorships. Find your niche and move to occupy it.


what keeps women off boards 04Have something to say, have something to offer. Ok, so you've been invited onto a board. Now what? Do you have something to offer, something to say, something that matters? If not, you're a waste of space and will soon be found out then turfed out (and deservedly so). You positioned yourself well but turned out to be a poser. All of which could've been avoided if you'd had something to offer in the first place. Therefore, what's your angle? What is unique or noteworthy about your perspective that warrants your inclusion on a board? Answer that question and you're over 50% on your way to a Board position.


what keeps women off boards 05Forget the corporate photo, concentrate on competence. The current US fad seems to be making the corporate photo look "right", ie, ensuring the latino, the black, the female, the Asian, the non-Christian, are all visible.
What a joke! What a sham!
Except - wait a minute - some of those tokens are actually pretty competent people (which is why some executive search firms specialise in diversity, ie, finding people to cross-pollinate board input so it's not a bunch of old white guys). That's why you need to forget the photo and concentrate on competence. Be competent enough and you'll be found.

Folks, the jury is in: diversity on boards is a good idea. Research from the Australian Graduate School of Management (and others) show that companies with heterogeneous boards perform best in the market.

Other studies indicate that dual-gender boards are superior to exclusively male boards. That's why the absence of women in the boardroom has drawn criticism from activists and politicians. In the U.S., Fortune 500 companies are criticized for having only 16.1% of directors as females; among Canada’s FP500, representation by women has increased by 5% to 14.5%; in the U.K., Prime Minister David Cameron said he will “not rule out quotas” as a way of getting more women onto Boards and also into top executive jobs.

Perhaps the most pro-active development of women on boards comes from Europe. In Madrid, the firm ExcellentSearch founded a Division of Women on Boards years ago. “There are many, many studies identifying the benefits of having women Directors,” says Founder and CEO Elena Terol. “Gender-diverse boards promote greater vigilance over financial reporting and women understand the needs of women customers and employees better than men.”

In Vienna, Lehner Executive Partners has also formed a division dedicated to women on boards and CEO DDr. Gabriele Lehner has published a book on the subject. The firm has also conducted a wide study of the banking industry to assess the impact of EU banking regulations requiring women in upper management and boards.

I myself used to work in an international executive search group in which 25% of the firms were founded, owned and managed by women (including my wife's search firm in Sao Paulo).

[This didn't seem odd to me. My mom was a national award winning banker in the US so I was used to seeing women excel in business: Lessons from Mom, the Banker.]

what keeps women off boards 06One thing's for sure, the drive for diversity has accelerated.

The top 100 companies in the UK face a government mandated target of 25% by 2015, reached 15.6% last year, up from 12.5% the year prior. The Nordic-Baltic countries are far in front: women hold a quarter of boardroom posts in Sweden and in Norway, where quotas came into force in 2008, the allocation is 40%.

“The recent financial crisis has naturally pushed diversity issues off the front burner,” says Elena Terol in Madrid. “But our research confirms that Board diversity is key to restoring trust.”

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Duff Watkins has appeared on Australian national television and radio, and hosts the business podcast of the American Chamber of Commerce in Australia. He's been a keynote speaker at conferences in Australia, Malaysia, UK, and US and has delivered 1000+ presentations. He is Director of ExecSearch International-Australia [www.execsearch.com.au]